MDNA audience bears witness to Madonna's inner turmoil

Concert review & online poll: As much as Madonna's previous Sticky and Sweet tour poked fun at herself, last night's show at du Arena was about exorcising her demons.

Abu Dhabi, UAE, June 3, 2012:

Madonna dazzled the crowd with dance moves and graphics to match her songs. She is seen here performing on stage inside of the Du Arena.

Lee Hoagland/The National
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Madonna thrilled a packed du Arena on Sunday night in the first of two Abu Dhabi shows that offered a visually dazzling performance.

The 53-year-old was in fine physical form as she battled the stifling heat to deliver a 20-song set leaning heavily on her latest album, MDNA. She also delivered the much-touted jab at Lady Gaga by seamlessly merging her classic Express Yourself with Gaga’s modern hit Born This Way, before concluding with the coup de grace refrain: “She’s not me.”

While Madonna’s dig at Gaga is a major talking point, her latest showpiece is as much about settling scores with her inner demons as it is cementing her title as “Queen”.

While her previous Sticky and Sweet tour saw her lightly poking fun at herself and her various musical guises throughout the years, this concert was at times brutally dark and suffocating and as much an emotional exorcism as a performance.It began with a dour church bell, transporting the audience to a temple full of occult imagery.

A giant thurible swung as smoke swirled around a legion of chanting hooded monks.Madonna descended from the steeple of the church tower to the synth riffs of Girl Gone Wild.When the energetic number finished, Madonna stood at the edge of the stage with a Kalashnikov and shouted out: “Hello, Abu Dhabi”; an image surely to rival the rapper Snoop Dogg’s entrance on the same stage last year dressed in a kandura.There was more gunplay with the follow-up track, Revolver, and it was here that we witnessed the giant LED screens – reportedly the biggest ever on tour – work their magic.

Their shifting formations gave the visuals an almost hallucinatory quality, with cascading bullets shells and bodies morphing into snakes; images not expected in pop concerts but riveting nonetheless.However, the visuals paled in comparison to the Quentin Tarantino revenge romp that is Gang Bang.

Cooped up in a dingy motel, Madonna turned executioner as she dispensed bloody vengeance to masked would-be assailants invading from all corners, including the roof.

All that killing struck at her conscience; she pleaded in Papa Don’t Preach before being abducted by monstrous soldiers in Hung Up and re-emerged once again triumphant in rock star mode in I Don’t Give A ...And this was only the first act.

Those expecting a celebratory trip down memory lane must have found the whole affair rather galling. Fortunately, Madonna let some much-needed light sift through among the gloom with the Express Yourself/Born This Way medley, although that lyrical uppercut to Gaga in the finale showed the Material Girl wasn’t ready to play nice.

It is this uneven fierce streak – Madonna’s persona, visuals and performances – that was responsible for both the show’s highs and minor stumbles. When it worked, it gave the new material from MDNA a kick sorely missing from the recordings. The fluffy Give Me All Your Luvin’ received an extra welcome bite courtesy of the percussive storm by the more than dozen-strong marching band.

However, her over-aggressive stance sapped out all the fun from the pop-tastic Turn Up the Radio. The balance was restored in the final act with the anthemic I’m a Sinner and the gospel-driven Like a Prayer, which brought the crowd to their feet.One has to hand it to Madonna: besides the eight costume changes, she was constantly on the move, mixing it up with the dancers and singing along in fine voice. Yet more than her faultless work ethic, you sensed that what the crowd looked for, yearned for and found only fleetingly, were moments of emotional connection. Instead, we stood as voyeurs peering into Madonna’s inner turmoil. It’s not the happiest of places, but arresting just the same.